There is a strong feeling of place in The Fullbright Company's Gone Home. A critically-lauded first person exploration game about a house and its inhabitants, Gone Home tells a powerful, moving story about two sisters' lives through the artifacts of the everyday. The tapes left lying around the house are tracks from Riot Grrrl bands, the sort that grew out of Portland, Oregon in the 90s. Letters and postcards addressed to the house litter every surface. Like its spiritual parent the Bioshock series, the environment is the fabric of the story itself. The relationships the family have with each other, their neighbours, their childhood friends, their longings fall into relief as you traverse this home. There's no doubt in your mind once you finish the game that this house contained real people who liked each other, got on with each other, were a family.
The Fullbright Company - Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, Johnnemann Nordhagen and Kate Craig - live in a house together in Portland, Oregon. This is where Gone Home was made. This is a retrospective look at the collaborative aspects of how Gone Home was produced, and how pragmatic game design and projects of a strict scope can be more of an expression of who the creators are. Go and play the excellent Gone Home now, if you haven't already, for what proceeds are a few small spoilers.
The co-founders of The Fullbright Company gained their development expertise working on big projects like Bioshock 2 and the Minerva's Den expansion and wanted a project of their own. The first step was to find a space for that to happen in. “The reason we are in Portland is because I used to live here,” Steve says. “I went to college here and my wife is from here, so my wife and I had decided to be here already. We were going to be here. At the very least, Karla and Johnnemann knew that I was already here. We had a base of operations. The first place we started working together was in my wife's parents' house while they were out of town while we looked for our own place.”
“We worked together before and we made something we were proud of before, and the fact that I set up a base camp before people moved up here to meet up with me, at least there was a little bit of solidarity."
Throughout Gone Home there is a strong feeling of not only place, but transience. The feeling of the recently uprooted. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, the eldest daughter who has just returned to her family's new house from wandering Europe. From the address on the Wellspring Movers invoice found in the lobby, you can look up the zip code of where in Oregon the fictional house is situated. It's a Tillamook zip code: OR 97141. A little adventure in Google Maps shows you that Tillamook is green, tree-laden landscape that reminds me of a flatter Scotland. Tillamook is mostly populated with dairy farms. It is a place that has a removed quality about it. It looks peaceful.
One can imagine that this is a sense of transience that was felt in the Gone Home studio. Everyone left to work on this intense project, and now they have finished they are moving again. “We will get paid soon." Steve says. "The biggest reason we all split a house was that we are living off our savings, it's a big reason we're in Portland, the production constraint for this project was how long could we live on the money that we have. We all split rent to keep costs low.”
The move is indicative of the team's pragmatic approach to production. Gone Home was created in just a year and a half of disciplined development, controlled by a keen awareness of the team's limits. “The big thing was the biggest parameter of what kind of game we could make, knowing who we had and what we were good at was a prerequisite," says Steve. "So we started coming up with specifics between the point where we had left all our old jobs. Karla and Johnnemann moved up here, we were actually on site ready to start producing stuff. By the time we hit the ground we were ready to start putting stuff on the screen.”
Each character in the Gone Home house has their own individual story strand: Samantha embarks on a teenage romance, a budding fiction writer; Terry, the father, is in a sort of mid-life crisis, struggling with his publisher to have his latest book published; the mother is meditating quite clearly on having an affair. The boy next door even figures, someone who you sense is not just after Nintendo games. Each member of the family, even Kaitlin, contributes an important foundation to Gone Home's narrative.
I ask Karla and Steve if putting together the pillars of the Gone Home team was like putting together the A Team. “ It definitely was,” Steve says, matter-of-factly. “Some people may say A Team, some people may say like a band I guess.”
“Or like Voltron,” Karla says.
“Karla is really good at being our right leg if we're going with the Voltron thing,” Steve agrees. “But it depends on what metaphor we're working with. It is very much like at [2K] Marin, one person was responsible for each specific discipline. It was like programmer, 2D artist, 3D artist, and writer/designer. You know, all those aspects overlapped, and as far as we were giving input to each other and kicking ideas about what each other was working on, but at the end of the day… yes all the 2D art in the game was from Karla, and all the 3D models in the game will be from Kate with a rare exception.
“I touched the very tiniest bit of Johnnemann's code once or twice or something,” Steve adds, “but for all intents and purposes he programmed every single thing in the game that didn't come with the unity engine. So yeah I think it is really nice actually to be 'I own this one great elemental part of the game, and be totally responsible for it."
This approach produced an extremely streamlined game that didn't do more than it had to, or fall short of anything. Each person in the team had experience in exploratory storytelling, so they knew that was the kind of game they were best at making together.
“The reason that we could go a year and a half from - let's try downloading Unity to 'we have reviews of the game up online',” Steve says, “Is because we came up with a very small well-scoped plan early and then we just did it, and we didn't run into anything where we lost four months of work or anything else. There was a lot of luck to that, we are insanely lucky that we found Kate Craig who did our 3D art, because a month or two after we started on the project we happened to meet her, she just happened to be a 3D artist and she happened to be interested on working on something new."
Fullbright's lean development management is also reflected in Gone Home's design, as Steve explains. “I think that what we did is take games that did have established frameworks that we had worked on before, we were reductive about it and we removed elements until we had as little as we needed to get this experience across, then we added very little back in to specifically support what we were doing.
"For the most part it was like 'we know this genre of exploratory FPS games, if we scale back as far as possible and then add in as little as possible to mould what we are doing to that specific end…' That was the process that we had, which I think is an interesting middle ground between 'okay we're just going to take an established genre do that thing everybody knows what it is,' and 'let's start from scratch and assume nothing and be as experimental as possible.'“
Taking an established way of looking at games led to the team being extremely puckish with game-literate players. At one point you see a bath slathered in red; you can't help but think the worst.“People think they've seen this kind of thing, 'when they did this last there was a monster,' It's normal to make those associations,” Karla says. “[It wasn't] 'haha you thought we were going to do this, you're an idiot.'”
“It wasn't pulling a prank on the player,” Steve says. “The intent on my end was what you're pointing out is that in a game there's going to be something unreal or fantastical about the setting – because there might as well be. If you can have your game and have your ghosts and zombies in it. That's something that's expected."
At another juncture the Greenbriar parents have left a Post-It note admonishing the youngest sister Samantha for leaving all the lights on in the house - something that you as a player have been doing ever since you started the game. Gone Home plays with the idea of 'unreality' in games, pointedly telling the player they are here for the characters and their experience of a world that the players are familiar with. Our own.
“It is weird, in a game you don't start with the assumption that this is a normal real world,” Steve argues, “and then there's something weird and it's like 'woah that's crazy.' But if you're reading a book and there's ghosts in it, your standard expectation of this isn't about people - it's changed to a genre book. But with games you come from the expectation of, if you see blood then there's probably a serial killer, if it seems haunted then it probably is. So from my point of view we had to do real work to reinforce the idea that no this is just the real world where normal people live and there is nothing in this fiction that wouldn't be in our own reality.
“Your very assumption is that there's going to be some kind of crazy thing – a monster in a closet or something. For me I wanted to keep pulling that imagery and whenever that imagery put on screen to saying 'no it's just something normal that can happen in anybody's house, this is the real world.' Hopefully by the end you're concentrating on the story of these characters you're learning about and not 'oh it's now the ghost is going to jump out on me'.”
Due to the stringent descoping of the Gone Home team on anything that wasn't strictly necessary, there were so few problems in development that Karla has to tell me about the time she tried to put a skeleton in a pillow. “You know when you drop a pillow on the floor and you expect it to scrunch,” Karla says, musing on pillow poofiness. “We thought we could see if we could make ragdoll physics for the pillows. We needed to have ragdoll with Unity, we tried to do it and it didn't work multiple times, and I thought 'I have no idea what I'm doing,' I talked to a guy at Unity and he said 'you can't do ragdoll that aren't humans!' So I tried to put a human skeleton inside a pillow, it was weird, but that also didn't work. So we were like 'okay we're not going to have squishy pillows.'”
But working in the Gone Home house - wasn't it hard, living with your workmates? Seeing them every day?
“Well I totally want to be like 'well not once we all took the medication, then it was fine!'” Karla laughs. “I don't think we had any major issues. I think we were all pretty grown up about it, because we are grownups and we've had roommates before and stuff. I like having roommates because I tend to be a creepy hermit because it's nice to be around people who do things who you can talk to. So you don't get up one morning and think 'I haven't spoken to a human being in five days'. I don't think we had any problems.”
And so what was a day in development like?
“It's a lot of working in parallel,” Steve says. “Each of us had our area and responsibilities that were well compartmentalised from everybody else's. I, being the level designer, had to touch all of it, my work was clearing what everybody else was putting into the game. I ended up knowing what notes Karla had finished that were ready to put in the game, and I had to know what 3D meshes Kate had done, I needed to know what stage the system was working in so I could start using it and so on and so forth. “
“Our jobs had way more variety. We were very seldom stuck for weeks working on the same thing. Even if it was like 'press event, let's work towards that.' It's really valuable to be able to do that, rather than 'we have you down for 200 assets, which number are you on now?'” Karla adds.
Read on for discussion of Gone Home's ending. If you haven't finished the game, stop reading, there be huge spoilers ahead .
Now commences a discussion of the ending. If you haven't reached the ending, huge spoilers from here on.
The ending was a surprise to everyone. Samantha, the younger sister, and her crush Lonnie decide to run off together, something that is sort of reminiscent, to me anyway, of Thelma and Louise's driving into the sunset. Though Thelma and Louise's ending is somewhat more of the impending doom nature, there is a sense that Samantha and Lonnie do have a lot of obstacles in the way of their relationship - not least their youth, the disapproval of their parents - even society's disapproval itself. But it's a grand romantic gesture, a bid for freedom that ends on a happy, inspirational note, written with grace by Fullbright.
Was there a temptation to end the story with a grand tragedy instead?
“Not grand in the sense of everyone throws themselves down a well,” Karla says.
“We never had an ending where everybody was dead, it was never quite that far,” Steve says. “We did kind of start from the point of thinking of Romeo and Juliet being an initial archetypal model. The ending was a lot more melancholy for a really long time. They weren't going to get to be together at the ending and it was going to be kind of, not a straight up downer, still a sort of ambiguous semi-interpretive ending. As we were going to figure out what the motivators were as I was writing it. It was not fitting to us, this is just not interesting they grow apart and they don't get to be together, they feel kind of sad. Oh okay I guess they just felt sad? The end?
“So we wanted at that point we were resolved to say what's going to be interesting all of the obstacles that stand between them being together and that those weren't external obstacles that were like 'mum and dad say no'; they are internal obstacles like 'mum wants this and Sam has this in her future, and society that they're in has these expectations'. And so the conflict is internal between the two characters primarily and they want and the directions their lives are heading in. it's a relief and it's inspiring et cetera when they get together at the end, because they have overcome the things about themselves primarily that were going to keep them apart - and they've made this grand romantic gesture and put themselves through a totally uncertain situation that they're then going to have to deal with the reality of. We didn't know what the ending was until two weeks before we recorded the final voice session.”
“We had to let them have their moment, let them take their chance as it were,” Karla says.
Gone Home's ending echoes The Fullbright Company's decision to move to Portland, take a chance on their savings lasting and, for a year and a half, work on a game that they wanted to be different, to be inspirational, and to be solely about people and their relationships to each other. Samantha and her father's scribbles and notes illustrating the fictional lives of people they have created lie strewn across dark, empty rooms for the player to find. The house where Gone Home is set, and the house The Fullbright Company occupy, seem to be spaces where stories are possible. But as usual, Steve Gaynor is keen on downplaying any romantic notions I have about the place where Gone Home's story was born.
“It hasn't been too intense. We're all sharing the same space. If you have a housemate before, you don't see your housemate all the time. They go out and do stuff or whatever. I don't know. It hasn't been really dramatic or anything.”
Looking at Samantha's last note to her sister, Kaitlin, I can't really bring myself to agree.